Martha Coakley and the Politics of Despair

Here’s the deal: if Martha Coakley loses tonight then it’s good news for Lloyd Blankfein, who’s worried about financial regulation reform, for the super rich, whose taxes will remain low, and for everyone generally interested in preventing Obama from governing this country. On the other hand, her loss is bad news for those of us who care about adequate health care coverage for all Americans and for those around the world whose cities will be wiped out by the effects of global warming. Coakley’s loss is bad news, basically, for any of us who believe that our country’s problems should be tackled head on. Not because she’s so great, but because she’s pivotal for the system to work. In my last post, “The Pathos of Helplessness,” I wrote about the need to re-assert the prerogative of governing ourselves as country — the need to open up the avenues for making effective policy decisions and for creating a culture of collective self-sacrifice. Scott Brown’s election would be a monumental strike against this hope.
If you want to understand what the “pathos of helplessness” is all about then look at any given video clip from the 9/12 rallies. See a fearful and angry people. Or review the obstructionism of congressional Republicans. See a group utterly determined to prevent, well, everything. Yet there’s also another side to this, and it comes in the form of despair. Here Andrew Sullivan gives us a beautifully depressing example:

Even if Coakley wins – and my guess is she’ll lose by a double digit margin – the bill is dead. The most Obama can hope for is a minimalist alternative that simply mandates that insurance companies accept people with pre-existing conditions and are barred from ejecting patients when they feel like it. That’s all he can get now – and even that will be a stretch. The uninsured will even probably vote Republican next time in protest at Obama’s failure! That’s how blind the rage is.
Ditto any attempt to grapple with climate change. In fact, any legislative moves with this Democratic party and this Republican party are close to hopeless. The Democrats are a clapped out, gut-free lobbyist machine. The Republicans are insane. The system is therefore paralyzed beyond repair.
Yes, I’m gloomy. Not because I was so wedded to this bill, although I think it’s a decent enough start. But because if America cannot grapple with its deep and real problems after electing a new president with two majorities, then America’s problems are too great for Americans to tackle.
And so one suspects that this is a profound moment in the now accelerating decline of this country. And one of the major parties is ecstatic about it.

Andrew Sullivan is one of our very best intellectuals. His work on gay marriage, torture, and Iran really are high points of internet journalism. His writings on Obama and Palin and the state of American conservatism are prescient and bold. He’s not, in other words, a tea partier. Yet, I suggest, his position of despair is exactly theirs. If you really believe in governing, in fixing our problems rather than drifting through them, then you have to believe in fixing the government and revivifying our civic culture as well. You don’t fix our country without starting there. And you certainly don’t fix it by telling us that the whole thing is helpless and corrupt and cannot be saved. The pathos of helplessness is two-fold: it’s the people who don’t believe in governing and it’s the people who don’t believe that we can if we tried. Both are, to use Sullivan’s word, “nihilism.” And both are part of the problem.
Photo credit: Flickr stream of atrphoto

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